SPRING HILL — Settled into their new "open-air tabernacle" on Mariner Boulevard, congregants of Springs of Life Family Church now worship God while looking at the nature surrounding them.
Billed on its website as "Hernando County's only Bible-based, (Holy) Spirit-filled, air-cooled outdoor church," the ministry had its first service at the new location on June 3, on the church's ninth anniversary.
Worshiping together in the great outdoors is a great feeling, says the church's pastor, the Rev. John Grossi — even if it's only temporary.
"We hear every week from people (who say) that to be sitting outside is such a beautiful setting for a church," Grossi said. "You feel like you're outdoors on your back porch. But you're with your whole church family."
In April, the non-denominational church purchased its new site — 5 acres that were once part of Sherwood Forest Nursery. The 6,000-square-foot former greenhouse being used for the 9:30 a.m. Sunday services is a pavilion-style building with no walls. It is cooled by fans and water coolers that spray mist. That, and the breeze that comes from being on a hill, keep the church comfortable and the bugs away, Grossi said.
It also keeps it dry.
"We were out there with that large storm about three weeks ago," Grossi said. "It was a hard, driving rain, but it was like sitting on your back porch enjoying the cool breeze. It was probably the worst weather that we'll ever experience, and we made it completely through it with ease."
The church, which can seat about 400, is wired for sound and lights, and there are screens at the front that display the words for songs and Scripture.
"It has all the conveniences of an indoor church but yet the beauty of being outside," Grossi said.
It's a "come as you are" church.
"That means everything from your attire to what your background is to what your attitude is to what you're looking for in a church," Grossi said. "We have not only a very warm and friendly church, but truly they're non-critical and non-judgmental. They welcome people, and people can really sense that and know that whatever they've done, they can be loved and forgiven and get to learn about this Jesus that we preach and teach."
The reason for the move was so the ministry can have a greater impact on the community, as evidenced by its hosting an all-you-can-eat barbecue dinner for 600 people from the community on the Fourth of July.
"We were out of room," Grossi said of the church's former location. "Now we have a great piece of property at a very central location in very close proximity to a great portion of Hernando County residents (that is) convenient for them to obtain groceries and clothing or to attend services and special events."
The congregation feeds and clothes hundreds of people in the community with its free weekly feeding program. At 10 a.m. each Friday, church members distribute food that they have purchased from a Tampa Bay ministry called Feeding America at 18 cents a pound.
"It's open to anyone, even if they come from Pasco County," Grossi said. "We don't look at licenses, electric bills or income. All we ask is a name and how many people they are feeding in their household."
Those attending the program are offered refreshments and a time of fellowship. Afterward, they participate in a walk-through of the supplies, selecting what they need.
"We try to help them because we know they're down," Grossi said. "We want them to feel comfortable and to realize that everybody has needs, just in different degrees and in different ways. It turns into a great social time for them."
About once a month, Feeding America brings its semitrailers to the church and, with the help of church volunteers, distributes large boxes filled with meat, vegetables and other necessities at no cost to the church or the recipients. Prior to the date, people obtain vouchers at the church to participate in the distribution; they pull their cars up to a conveyor belt to receive the box of food.
In its last distribution, the church handed out 350 vouchers, but it anticipates the number will increase as more people learn of the program. As of August, people will also be able to obtain the vouchers from the church's website at springsoflifechurch.com.
Beginning in September, the church plans to have a service at 7 p.m. every evening that will be shared with other church pastors, congregations and praise teams.
By next spring, Grossi said, the church will have remodeled the permanent, enclosed building on the site that is currently being utilized for the food and clothing ministries. Services will then be held there, and the open-air tabernacle will be used by the teens for their meetings.
Grossi said it was a real step of faith for the church to leave the former building it had been leasing on County Line Road to purchase the new property. The congregation was comfortable there, knowing it could pay its bills and that people would always show up for services.
"It was convenient," Grossi said. "But it just wasn't big enough to do what we wanted to do."
He knew the new location would mean an increase in expenditures.
"But God has been faithful and has provided completely so that we've been able to expand just about all of our ministries," Grossi said. "We stepped out, and we know that God has met us."